Sitting quietly at a desk may be the preferred behavior for elementary-school students, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way for them to learn. Researchers in Denmark have found that integrating whole-body movement into math lessons can significantly boost kids’ test scores. They published their research in the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience.
We all know that being active is good for our whole bodies. Recent studies have shown that those benefits reach all the way into the brain for both adults and kids. Intense exertion—the kind that gets your heart rate up—may improve alertness, and is linked to improved motor skills, sharper thinking, and better grades.
So we know that exercise can boost our brainpower. But can it help us learn? To find out, health scientists at the University of Copenhagen created a movement-centric, six-week math curriculum for elementary students. They recruited 165 pupils, all around the age of 7, and divided them into three groups. Some classes were given math lessons three times a week that required them to use their whole bodies (gross motor skills). They jumped, skipped, and crawled around the classroom, all while solving math problems.
Classes in the second group were sedentary but added fine motor skill activities to their lessons—that is, the students were asked to use LEGO bricks to help them solve math problems.
Kids in the third group, the control group, had their normal math instruction.
All the students were given standardized math tests before, immediately after, and eight weeks after the experiment. (Standardized test scores are not necessarily the best way to measure kids’ understanding, but they do provide a quantitative baseline by which to gauge improvement over the course of an experiment.)
Over the course of the six-week study, all three groups’ scores improved, but there was a clear winner. Kids in the crawling-skipping-jumping group saw the biggest boost in their scores, improving twice as much as students in the LEGO classes. The upswing in the gross motor skills group’s test scores was modest—about 7.6 percent—but still significant.
“We need to keep this in mind when developing new forms of instruction,” lead author Jacob Wienecke said in a statement.
Unfortunately, the score bump was not universal. Kids who struggled with math at the beginning of the study were still struggling afterward.
“Individual understanding must be taken into account,” Wienecke said. “Otherwise, we risk an unfortunate combined outcome in which those who are already proficient advance, and those who have not yet mastered concepts cannot keep up."